by Frederick R. Lynch, author of One Nation under AARP: The Fight over Medicare, Social Security, and America’s Future

Six years ago, I asked whether an aging baby boomer/AARP alliance might become the long-expected awakening giant of “age power,” a mobilized political force capable of repelling Medicare and Social Security cutbacks. This potential battle was postponed because of the re-election of President Barak Obama, a long steady recovery from the Great Recession, and one of the longest bull markets in stock market history. Now, with passage of the American Health Care Act by the Republican-dominated House of Representatives—a measure to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act—aging boomers have much to lose. The GOP proposal substantially reduces nursing home and other Medicaid benefits for aging Americans as well as permitting enormous boosts to insurance premiums for Americans age 40-64 who purchase health insurance on state or federal insurance exchanges. Whether the Senate or the White House accept such changes hangs in the balance.

My original question and the description of the political challenges for aging boomers and AARP thus remain very current and just as urgent:

Will aging boomers become an awakening, age-conscious political giant, increasingly visible either as an inert voting bloc or as a more active political movement geared to the protection of Medicare and Social Security? Can aging boomers transcend their many internal cultural, economic, and political differences and vote their age-based interests, fulfilling the presumption of age-motivated voting in the “senior power model” challenged by Robert Binstock? And what will be the role of AARP?

Boomers’ senior power potential will be heavily influenced by the nation’s economic future. Another decade of stagnant stock and real estate markets coupled with a long “jobless recovery” will increase aging boomers’ collective sense of angst and vulnerability—but also entangle Social Security and Medicare funding battles with rising economic and social problems of other population segments, especially in the wake of the Great Recession. In a widely read Atlantic magazine cover story, senior editor Don Peck listed these problems: “A slowly sinking [younger] generation; a remorseless assault on the identity of many men; the dissolution of families and the collapse of neighborhoods; a thinning veneer of national amity—the social legacies of the Great Recession are still being written, but their breadth and depth are immense. As problems, they are enormously complex and their solutions will be equally so.” How will these forces shape boomers’ political choices of “Me, We, or AARP”?

Without AARP’s leadership and vast resources, aging boomers’ abilities to politically resist entitlement reductions against progrowth appeals to “restore the middle class” and “reduce debt for our children” would be difficult at best. Their willingness to mobilize on their own as a voting bloc or movement may be fatally compromised by long-standing class/political/cultural divides, negative self-publicity wrought by boomers bashing boomers, and increasing calls for generational sacrifice and atonement. 

On the other hand, the results of the 2010 elections probably raised levels of political polarization and stalemate in the nation (and, especially, in Washington, D.C.) to such a degree that no individual or party will dare off er—much less, successfully enact—major entitlement reforms until after the 2012 presidential elections.

But the stage is being set for entitlement reform. The fight over Social Security, Medicare, and the future of the American nation-state has begun. Divided or united, boomers will be in the thick of those battles. And, whether as advocate or mediator, so will AARP.

Frederick R. Lynch is a government professor at Claremont McKenna College and the author of Invisible Victims and The Diversity Machine.